Stuffed dumplings are certainly nothing new. Not only does virtually every cuisine have them, but we have learned to identify the dumpling by the cuisine. For instance, you do not associate ravioli with anything other than Italian cuisine, and wontons and gyoza aren’t likely to show up in a Mexican restaurant. However, there is a stuffed dumpling that blurs the ethnic and cultural lines. Though the dish is also called varenyky by Ukrainians and Ruthenians, bryndzové pirohy in Slovakia, Schlutzkrapfen in Austria, or colţunaşi in Romania, most of us know and recognize it by its Polish name, pirogi or pierogi.
The word pirog, which is the singular form of pirogi (but who can only eat 1?), comes initially from the Proto-Slavic word meaning “feast or banquet.” In a more direct sense though, the word comes from the Old Russian word pirog, which means “pie.” And in most of the other Slavic cuisines that have adapted the pirog, the word usually translates locally as “pie” as well. Confusingly, when the word entered the English language, it started becoming slightly varied, with the plural form becoming the native Polish pirogi, the Anglicised pirogs, or, in some cases, the incorrect and oddly-double plural pirogis.
Other than the location, what makes a pirog a pirog is the dough/wrap, the filling, and the cooking method. The dough is typically a flour/water/egg dough (maybe with some mashed potatoes), and pirogi are made by folding the dough over the filling, making a semicircle. Unlike other dumplings, which may be uniquely savoury or sweet, by coming from the word for “pie,” pirogi are extremely adaptable: from simple Polish variations of potato, sauerkraut, and mushroom, to dessert pirogi containing jam and/or cheese, to pirogi for special occasions and holidays, which can contain specific ingredients and mixes. For preparation, the typical method is boiling, but baking and/or frying are not uncommon to achieve a different texture.
The first known use of the word pirog in the English language comes from a translation of the 1662 works of Adam Olearius’ The Voyages and Travels of the Ambassadors, where he writes that: “Among other things they make a sort of Pies, which they call Pirog, about the bigness and fashion of a twopenny Loaf.” Aside from translated works, the first fully English work to mention pirogi was Edward Daniel Clarke’s Travels in Various Countries of Europe, Asian and Africa (1811), who notes the already widespread appreciation for the dish: “Of all the dishes known in Russia, there is nothing in such general esteem from the peasant to the prince, as a kind of Patee, which are called Pirogi.” Finally, a more modern quote from Kyra Petrovskaya’s 1962 cookbook, titled Secrets of Russian Cooking, easily expresses a sentiment that any fan of the pirog can understand: “A true Russian (or anyone who’s ever tasted real Russian pirozhki or pirogi) can grow rhapsodic just talking about them.”